River Flyways

I live one lot off the Columbia River and have a decent view of whatever’s going on from my living room window (right now, the fall salmon are coming through, so there are usually several optimists parked in the channel). Every couple of hours for the last few days a Bell has thundered almost directly overhead, then made a left turn and followed the river out into the Hanford Reach. The Reach is home of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation (and the NSA depicted on the sectional map), and from our house we can see 2 decommissioned plutonium breeder reactors and an active nuclear power plant. It isn’t as awful as it sounds–boating up on the Reach is pretty secluded, and the tight security has been a boon for wildlife (deer, elk, coyotes, and all kinds of birds).

richland sectional

The River makes a nice flyway, and during summer weekends we’ll often see a Cessna or ultralight flying low-level northbound. Since were’re up off the river by 50+ feet, low-level to the river means even with our rooftops most times. This Bell has been following the river too–low level, but much higher than most of the fixed wing traffic. Like most rivers, the Columbia is easy to navigate and relatively free of obstructions; unlike the surrounding terrain, it’s also nice and flat. On this section of the river there are multiple power line crossings within the 50 or so miles between Richland and Priest Rapids Dam. Most of them are massive transmission towers, like two on the southern-most stretch. The first, unlighted set is an unmistakable eyesore–three lines, with orange and white towers on the river bank, at a slightly narrow stretch in the river. The second though isn’t so obvious, even though the towers are painted and lighted, it’s a single span (albeit they are still transmission wires). At that point, the river separates into 2 channels that are 1000 feet wide. If a pilot were navigating right straight up the river, there’s a point where the 3 towers would be in sight but the wires themselves wouldn’t be visible. With such a wide span though, there is a point where the towers will drop out of his field of view and the wires won’t yet be visible. This is the danger zone–a distraction at this point and those towers can drop out of his short term memory. When he looks up again, there’s nothing in his field of view until the wires come into his resolution distance. By then it’s too late to maneuver around them.

The other tricky part about wires crossing a span like this is that they don’t stay put vertically. Not that this is advisable behavior, but these plank-drivers are flying low enough that they could just as easily fly under the wires as over. Wires aren’t constants though, and the altitude that allows you to clear the wires during the early morning outbound flight isn’t going to be the same as the altitude that helps you clear the wires on the afternoon return trip. Since the wires are metal, they expand as they heat up. This can be from ambient temperatures–since this is the desert, we can be near freezing on an autumn morning and up in the 90s during the daytime. Or the load on the wires can generate the heat. Cool weather, low load, and the wires at mid-span will be high relative to where they are when the day heats up and there’s a high load on the system. Both of these problems are compounded when the surrounding terrain (higher elevations, forest) or environment (haze or fog) makes the towers harder to see and the wires invisible. Yes, I have heard a plane fly by low-level on days where I can barely make out the other side of the river because of fog.

The solution is to not fly down with the wires. The higher you fly, the lower your chance of getting clothes-lined. Turns out the Bell that’s working out in the area is going by the callsign Enery 11, so I’m guessing they’re working those powerlines in the Reach. I’d hoped to get up to the airport to see the ship up close and find out what they’re doing, but my friend at Bergstrom Aircraft who usually gets me out on the ramp whenever there’s a helicopter based there is out on vacation this week. Might head up onto the reach tomorrow to see if I can get a glimpse.

Blowing Corn


I had a crazy summer job in college catching corn boll weevil moths, and when I saw this video, something didn’t look right. Can you spot it? Only about 1 in 4 rows have tassels. I’m going to make a guess here: this must be a seed crop. Corn can self-pollinate when pollen from the tassel reaches the silks from the same plant. But when you want to make hybrid seeds—which will in turn make the corn that ends up on the table—you don’t want self-pollination. In this field, the tassels have been trimmed from the seed-producing plants. Wind can carry the pollen from male plants to the female silks, but wind isn’t always reliable. In addition, hot, dry days can kill off the pollen before it reaches a silk. That’s where the helicopter comes in. The rotorwash blows the pollen from the tassels and spreads it from the pollinator row to the seed rows. Even though it’s expensive to run the helicopter over the field, I imagine using the helicopter reduces the number of pollinator rows that are needed, and thereby increases the seed yield.

From the standpoint of getting this job done, there were a couple of things I was thinking about. The first one was that irrigation pivot. Working this low to the ground means you can’t let your guard down. From what I’ve read about ag work, you do a ground recon of the field and then recon it again from the air to spot all the possible obstructions. The pivots in our area are powered, but I’m not sure whether they use an underground line or draw electricity from another source. He’s also got to be working pretty close to the low-speed/low-altitude region of the dead-man’s curve. The corn fields I worked were maybe 7 feet high, but the irrigated ones around here look to be a couple of feet taller. When you can see the airspeed indicator, it doesn’t look like he’s above ETL while working. There are probably a couple of other hazards here. Lots of corn is grown in hot, humid places, so he’s got at least 2 of the 4 H’s working against him. The low airspeeds also raise the risk of LTE, and since the direction the corn is planted dictates his flight path, I’d be worried about VRS (aka, SWP) as well.

A friend of mine owns the local FBO, and knows my predicament (ie, no experience, no job). He suggested getting on with one of the ag operators, which I wouldn’t be too thrilled about. Not that I don’t think it wouldn’t be fun work, but low level, low time doesn’t seem like a good combination. Yet, I think this is the way some pilots build time, and one of my roommate’s from school is doing it.